Fictionalising science and CoVID
Jair Bolsonaro cut science funding and described CoVID as “little flu”.
Starting with Brazil, by May 2021, its total death toll from CoVID-19 passed 400,000. Its president, Jair Bolsonaro, has consistently mischaracterized CoVID-19 as a “little flu” and has refused to follow scientific advice in setting policy, such as enforcing mask-wearing and limiting contact between people. At the time this represented 13% of the world’s CoVID-19 mortalities – even though the country has less than 3% of the global population. He also implied that CoVID-19 vaccines could be dangerous, saying: “If you turn into a crocodile, it’s your problem.” He also declined to issue national orders to close non-essential businesses during the pandemic, saying lockdowns would be economically harmful, and labelling state governors who enforced them “tyrants”. Further, researchers in Brazil are unable to study SARS-CoV-2 variants properly because Bolsonaro cut funding for science so severely. This despite Brazil seeing the rise of the worrying P.1 variant and the evidence of a declining 'R' factor following cities introducing lockdowns.(2, 3)
Given Jair Bolsonaro’s failings, the rise in CoVID-19 cases and deaths, others have had to step in albeit, obviously, late in the day. Brazil’s top court intervened to stop his government withholding CoVID-19 data from the public. It also overturned a presidential veto of legislation requiring the use of masks in prison. In July, it ordered the administration to draft a plan to protect Brazil’s vulnerable indigenous peoples from the pandemic, while its Congress passed a bill forcing it to provide emergency health care to indigenous communities.
Boris Johnson dithered and vacillated.
While here in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not outright lied, he has dithered, vacillated and, arguably, not followed the science.
By the end of February 2020 some epidemiologists were saying that the “virus really [had] escaped from China and [was] being transmitted quite widely”.(4)
Among failures, Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to cancel a major horse racing meeting in Cheltenham. Worse, he allowed an international football match in Liverpool with a team from Spain, a country that then was already in lockdown!
Research has shown that if the UK lockdown had started two weeks earlier on 9th March 2020, the suppression of the epidemic could have begun with less than 5% of the infections that had occurred by 23rd March, and a large proportion – perhaps most – of the COVID-19 deaths to that date in the UK might have been prevented.(5)
Boris Johnson chose to ignore the gravity of the situation, despite having personally been hospitalised with it. Errors in England made the situation worse. Contact-tracing was stopped-and-started, policy for schools in England was inconsistent and poorly explained, and communications were often unclear. Contracting testing to big outsourcing companies, rather than running it through the National Health Service, slowed the process and disconnected it from health services. Public health messaging was confusing (a government call to “stay alert” was never explained despite its being a key slogan) and undermined by the refusal to fire high-profile Johnson advisor, Dominic Cummings, who very publicly flouted quarantine. Having muddied and undermined its stay at home message, the Johnson government then courted the right-wing press and its voters by re-opening pubs at the end of June while also imposing a two-week quarantine on international travellers, also irrational given that the United Kingdom was at that point an exporter rather than an importer of the virus.(6)
Narendra Modi held political rallies and allowed large religious festivals.
Similarly, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi response to the pandemic was woeful. India’s leaders became complacent after daily CoVID-19 cases peaked at nearly 96,000 in September 2020 before slowly declining to around 12,000 at the beginning of March 2021.(7)
Having been lucky with the first wave, by March 2021, the government repeatedly boasted that results from serological surveys and from India’s main computer model predicting disease spread showed that the country was in the “endgame” of the pandemic. By then, shopping centres, restaurants and theatres had reopened across the country. On the borders of Delhi, farmers held protests against new farm laws. Government ministers lauded large political rallies. And as millions gathered at the Kumbh Mela festival in April with hundreds of thousands on the banks of the Ganges, the chief minister of the state of Uttarakhand declared that the Ganges River, considered holy by Hindus, would protect everyone from the coronavirus. Yet, already India’s cases were beginning to boom.(8)
On 19th April 2021, India reported that it had had 273,810 new CoVID-19 cases in the previous 24 hours, then its highest daily total yet. At that time it had more than 14 million confirmed cases in total, overtaking Brazil as the world’s second-worst hit country, behind the United States.(9) By 27th April, India’s daily tally passed 353,000 cases, a global record!
Further, Narendra Modi was slow to order vaccines. When the Prime Minister finally got around to ordering vaccines the order was not placed with the Serum Institute, the world’s largest producer of vaccines but, as late as January 2021, with a smaller, wholly Indian owned company, Bharat Biotech, presumably for national prestige value? It can only make 12.5 million doses a month of its own Covaxin vaccine. This does not go far in a country of nearly 1.4 billion and by itself would take over 110 years to vaccinate the nation!
Donald Trump. The “common flu” is worse than CoVID-19.
In the US, its immediate past President, Donald Trump, was in office at the start of the outbreak. Throughout the subsequent year-and-a-half, he provided a masterclass in misrepresenting the science, obfuscation, and promulgating misinformation. There is so much he did to fail his own people, not the least of which was promulgating hydroxychloroquine as a cure. This was subsequently shown to be ineffective.(10, 11) Indeed, he did so much that it would take a book to begin to cover it all. But, to take one widely reported example, Trump plainly lied. Here, among others, the claim that Trump lied was made in an editorial of the leading weekly journal Science (the USA’s equivalent to Great Britain’s Nature).
In an interview with Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward on 7th February 2020, Trump said he knew that CoVID-19 was more lethal than the flu and that it spread through the air. “This is deadly stuff,” he said. But on 9th March, he tweeted that the “common flu” was worse than CoVID-19. Mean while his economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, and presidential counsellor, Kellyanne Conway, assured the public that the virus was contained. Then, on 19th March, Trump told Woodward that he did not want to level with the American people about the danger of the virus. “I wanted to always play it down,” he said, “I still like playing it down.” Yet playing it down meant lying about the fact that he knew the country was in grave danger.
Science editorial, 18th September 2020.
Science’s editor, Holden Thorp, said: “A U.S. president has deliberately lied about science in a way that was imminently dangerous to human health and directly led to widespread deaths of Americans. // This may be the most shameful moment in the history of U.S. science policy.” He finished: “Trump was not clueless, and he was not ignoring the briefings. Listen to his own words. Trump lied, plain and simple.”(12)
Even before the worst of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, back in April 2019 in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Shanto Iyengar and Douglas Massey noted in the US the systematic perversion of clearly stated scientific conclusions by partisan animosity, implicit ideological bias, political polarisation and politically motivated reasoning. They called for scientists and their scientific associations to anticipate campaigns of misinformation and disinformation and to take a stand, to proactively develop online strategies and internet platforms to counteract them when they occur. This article, then, is but one such stand against scientific falsehood. Having said that, Shanto Iyengar and Douglas Massey themselves opine that, “of course, this is much easier said than done, and… it might not be very effective.” (13)
Here in Britain there will be a public inquiry on our country’s response to the pandemic. This will begin in 2022. However, such enquiries are lengthy affairs. For example, the Iraq War inquiry, took seven years to report. Currently, Britain’s Independent Inquiry into Child Seχual Abuse, which commenced in 2015, has gone through four chairs and is still (2020) in progress. So consider it most likely that the report the UK government’s handling of CoVID-19 will appear long after those involved have left office.
Looking beyond politicians actively denying science, one broader issue is that most politicians do not have a skill-set that includes science, technology, engineering, maths/medicine (STEM) subjects. Here, in the United Kingdom of over a score of politicians in the nation’s governmental Cabinet at that time,(14) most had qualifications relating to politics, philosophy and economics, English literature, law and history. Just two held a STEM degree and a third had studied at agricultural college before working on a farm. Perhaps with its predominantly humanities expertise, the Cabinet did not have the best skill mix to deal with a pandemic let alone address issues arising in a scientific age with economies becoming increasingly technological and knowledge-based?
Over in the US, only now (2021) for the first time has the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy been appointed to the President's Cabinet. Therefore, geneticist Eric Lander becomes the first US scientific adviser to have such Presidential access with his promotion by President Joe Biden. The wonder is that it has taken so long for such a move given the United States’ economy’s dependence on science and technology and its knowledge base. Eric Lander faces a number of challenges not least because Biden’s predecessor, the aforementioned Donald Trump, had cut funding from key areas of science. One concern, Eric Lander sees, is that there are large parts of the US that do not have a science high school or a science-based industry. This makes it difficult to enable all Americans, should they wish, to participate in science even if they are really interested in it.(15)
Fictionalising science is abhorrent. I am with the Astronomer Royal and past President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, in saying it is “better [to] read first class science fiction than second class science”.
I myself am an unashamed fan of science fiction: it can be both entertaining and stimulating, providing societal insights. But, make no mistake, there is a world of difference between science fiction and fictionalised science.
Though Shanto Iyengar and Douglas Massey note that it will be hard, hopefully you will be encouraged to speak out, confronting, science misinformation when you come across it. You might not change misinformation promulgators’ minds (they are probably a lost cause) but you might make a difference to those undecided, beguiled by the simplicity of facile thinking, who listen to such messages.
It is important to speak out and, for what it is worth, this is me doing just that.
1) Lincoln, N. (2020) A special self-image is no defence against CoVID-19: Many countries that see themselves as distinctive have handled the pandemic badly. Nature, vol. 585, p325.
2) Taylor, L. (2021) ‘We are being ignored’: Brazil’s researchers blame anti-science government for CoVID surge. Nature, vol. 593 p15-16.
3) Candido, D. S. et al. (2020) Evolution and epidemic spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Brazil. Science, vol. 369, p1,255-1,260.
4) Cohen, J. & Kupferschmidt, K. (2020) Strategies shift as coronavirus pandemic looms. Science, vol. 367, p962-3.
5) Colbourn T. (2020) Unlocking UK CoVID-19 policy. Lancet Public Health, vol. 5 e362
6) Falkenbach, M. & Greer S. L. (2020) Denial and Distraction: How the populist radical right responds to CoVID-19. International Journal of Health Policy and Management, DOI:10.34172/ijhpm.2020.141
7) Editorial (2021) India, Brazil and the human cost of sidelining science. Nature, vol. 593, p7-8.)
8) Padma, T. V. (2021) Indian government should heed its scientists on CoVID. Nature, vol. 593, p9.
9) Padma, T. V. (2021) India’s CoVID vaccine woes: by the numbers. Nature, vol. 592, p500-1.
10) Maisonnasse, P., Guedj, J., Contreras, V. et al (2020) Hydroxychloroquine use against SARS-CoV-2 infection in non-human primates. Nature, vol. 585, p584-7.
11) Hoffmann, H., Mosbauer, K., Hofmann-Winkler, H. et al (2020) Chloroquine does not inhibit infection of human lung cells with SARS-CoV-2. Nature, vol. 585, p588-590.
12) Thorp, H. H. (2021) Trump lied about science. Science, vol. 369, p1,409.
13) Iyengar, S. & Massey, D. S. (2019) Scientific communication in a post-truth society. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., vol. 116 (16), p7,656–7,661.
14) Wikipedia: The Second Johnson Ministry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Johnson_ministry (accessed September 2021).
15) Subbaraman, N. (2021) First science advisor in US President’s cabinet talks CoVID, spying and more. Nature, vol. 594, p311.
Jonathan Cowie is an environmental scientist with an interest in human ecology and Earth systems science. He has had a career with UK learned and professional scientific bodies. This included for over one and a half decades being with the Institute of Biology (the precursor body to the subsequent Royal Society of Biology). Here, several years were spent as its Head of Science Policy & Books where he represented the collected views of the Institute, as well as those of over 65 British, specialist biological learned societies, to parliamentarians, government, its departments and agencies. He is also one of the founding editors of SF² Concatenation. He can be found online at science-com.concatenation.org, or at that URL at the 'way back machine' or British Library web archive.